The New Year began here in the Crescent City with a bang. The sky was alight with fireworks at midnight on the 31st, stacks of Christmas trees were put to flame on neutral ground medians, and guns blazed throughout the city as some people fired randomly into the air, honoring a dubious local tradition of celebration.
Now, the fireworks have all been blown to bits, and nothing remains of the bonfires but piles of ash. The gunfire, though, continues, but no longer out of celebration. Now, the shots heard throughout the city are the sounds of tragedy. For in New Orleans right now, a wave of violence and gunfire is destroying lives, terrorizing neighborhoods and threatening the city's recovery.
During the first seven days of 2007, eight New Orleanians were shot to death in their homes or in the streets. Two weeks ago, local filmmaker and activist Helen Hill was gunned down in her home, her husband wounded. Just after Christmas, New Orleans lost Dinerall Shavers, the up-and-coming young drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band, who was killed by a bullet intended for someone else. Last year, 162 people were murdered here—children, teenagers and adults, community activists and drug dealers. The city is suffering under a tide of violence that seems to rise every day.
Those in power seem ill-equipped to make the city safer. Mayor Ray Nagin wants to step up early-morning drug and alcohol checkpoints, and plans to enlist the sheriff's department for patrols, but with seven former NOPD officers under indictment for first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of two unarmed men on the Danziger Bridge after Katrina, and other cops under investigation for beating up a lawyer in the French Quarter, faith in law enforcement is slim.
Neighborhoods of color fear police harassment, and with good reason. Black men have been arrested and jailed for drinking a beer in their front yard (public intoxication), riding a bike without a headlight and running a storm-damaged red light. Such abuse of police discretion over trivial charges has sown resentment and mistrust throughout many communities. Police ironically now rely upon the cooperation of these same communities in their search for witnesses to the recent spate of murders.
Despite the fact that the chief of police is literally begging for eyewitnesses to recent homicides to come forward, few, maybe none, has done so out of the fear of retribution. This is a small city, and the cycle of violence spins tightly here. A 19-year-old guns down a fellow teen one week, and the next week he himself becomes a victim in the retaliatory spiral. An eyewitness calls the cops, and then that witness becomes the next target. With a historically abysmal record of successful prosecutions for murder in Orleans Parish, it's no wonder that citizens keep silent in the face of injustice.
But the silence is coming to an end. Neighborhood communities in New Orleans are rather insular, but almost every neighborhood is reeling from the violence. In response, church and civic leaders are speaking out and organizing marches on City Hall. People are meeting all across town to discuss solutions for a safer future. Pastors have fasted, vigils and memorials have been held, and in some parts of town, signs protesting the violence line the streets that say simply, "ENOUGH!"
New Orleans has a history of overcoming adversity, up to and including the ruin of the city after the hurricanes of 2005. But this violence threatens the city like no storm could. This tide of brutality is corroding the heart of the city, striking randomly and deadly. Unless citizens and leaders realistically deal with the crime, and more importantly, the conditions that create crime (low wages, unemployment, poor education, poverty), then New Orleans will have survived the greatest catastrophe to strike an American city, only to fall victim to trigger-happy thugs and murderous teenagers.
Matt Robinson, an occasional Indy contributor, lived in Carrboro before volunteering with Common Ground Collective in New Orleans after Katrina, where he writes for bloggingneworleans.com.